John Guy's work entertains but fails to cohere as he treads the familiar ground of Thomas More's life

Thomas More: A Very Brief History, by John Guyis a lively and learned little book, but I do not quite understand what it is trying to do. It consists of a 40-odd page potted biography of More, which is very well done but covers mostly familiar ground, and a further 40-odd pages of essays (four of them) on various ways in which More and his writings have been treated down the centuries since his martyrdom. But the two halves really do not cohere. And placing eight pages of full-colour illustrations between them only increases the incoherence.

Those four essays include an intriguing account of how the famous wall-hanging by Holbein depicting More and his family was copied and “edited” over the ages. Another tells the inside story of how the canonisation of More and Fisher was eventually achieved in 1935 – even though neither had certified miracles to their credit (as a wit observed, they were “excused their practicals”).

And then there is a piece on how More’s reputation, at its height thanks to Robert Bolt’s play and then film, A Man for all Seasons, has recently been savaged by Hilary Mantel’s bitter Wolf Hall – though it was surely RW Chambers’s life of More, first published in 1935, which truly made him a national figure, and Geoffrey Elton in the 1960s who first tried to debunk him (attributing his hair shirt, etc and persecution of heretics to repressed sexuality).

More was a complex, sophisticated person. Nothing shows this better than his most famous work, Utopia, about which Guy has many interesting things to say. But we cannot fully understand that extraordinary book unless we grasp what was fundamental to its author: a profound belief in human sinfulness. Like Fisher, but so unlike their cheerful friend Erasmus, More was an Augustinian through and through.

So there are several “levels” to Utopia. It is a huge leg-pull and a savage parody of contemporary society. It was intended to produce laughs and blushes. But it was also a sermon. Its ultimate message was that only the often preposterous regime under which the Utopians lived could curb human sinfulness – and since that regime could never happen in real life, we must resign ourselves to living in a deeply sinful world. We must make the best of it. Thus, as Guy shows, after much torment, More eventually accepted public office under Cardinal Wolsey, hoping that the latter would fight greed and injustice, but knowing that such sinfulness was ineradicable.

All that helps to explain More’s ferocious response to Protestantism, particularly in the person of William Tyndale, one of the first English followers of Luther. For More, Tyndale was doing the work of the Devil, causing chaos, promoting mass sacrilege, murdering men’s souls. He and his ilk were vivid examples of man’s terrible sinfulness. They deserved death as much as did the most wanton criminal.

Guy contrasts More’s understanding of “conscience” with Luther’s. Each believed it was sovereign – though not autonomous. It had to be informed. They disagreed fundamentally on how that was to be done. Luther claimed Holy Writ, and especially St Paul, as the source of his certainty about salvation; More that it was being a member of “the common corps of Christendom” which guaranteed that he possessed the truth. And that was what made him so angry. Luther was arrogantly preferring his individual, subjective experience to the teaching and witness of Christendom down the ages.

Others who took up the pen against Luther and his followers shared More’s indignation, but usually wrote scholarly replies in Latin. More aimed at the man in the street. He wrote blistering, sometimes almost knockabout stuff, often in dialogue form, with jokes – even bawdy ones – “merry” asides and much repetition to keep the reader going and indignant.

More has a special place in the history of religious polemics. Utopia, as Guy reminds us, has also secured his renown, albeit for rather different reasons. (Even Karl Marx liked it.)

In his time, Guy has written a great deal about More. This book, he announces in its foreword, is “positively my last word” on him. That is a pity.